Des Plaines River Canoe & Kayak Marathon bounces back after 2018 cancellation
BY RICH PALZEWIC
With the cancellation of the 2018 Des Plaines River Canoe & Kayak Marathon (DPRM) due to high water, event organizers are looking forward to getting back on track with the race this year.
“Instead of taking pictures of the winners at the 61st annual DPRM, I spent all afternoon of race day in my basement folding 500 t-shirts that had been ordered and paid for by participants,” said Sigrid Pilgrim, who is an event organizer for the race. “Al Pilgrim, a co-chair of the event, spent two days typing/printing mailing labels, and with the help of Rick Jackson and David Hoff, the three packed up the shirts and hauled them to the post office.”
Pilgrim noted that race organizers will cancel the event if, on Friday noon before the race, the river is at 6 feet at the Gurnee Gage with no possibility of the level receding.
“On May 17 of last year, the gauge was at 8.33 feet,” said Pilgrim. “Then on race day, it was still close to 8 feet. Hopefully, the Weather God will be more cooperative this year for the 62nd annual running of the Des Plaines River Canoe and Kayak (and SUP) event.”
Always held on the Sunday before Memorial Day weekend, this year’s race will take place May 19, 2019.
The DPRM is the second-oldest continuous running canoe race in the United States and was first held in 1957. Founder Ralph “Mr. Canoe” Frese began the event and built canoes to introduce his Boy Scout troop to the beauty of the Des Plaines River. More than 60 years later, it shows no signs of slowing down.
Held on an 18.5-mile stretch of the river from Libertyville to Prospect Heights, Illinois, hundreds of paddling enthusiasts from around the country make the annual trek to the northwest suburbs of Chicago as part of their spring tradition.
“When fiberglass first became available, Ralph Frese started building these little canoes for his Boy Scouts,” Pilgrim said. “Once he had built a bunch of those, he took the kids out on the river. Of course, one thing led to another and that started the competition. That’s the origin of how the event got its start.”
Ralph, who passed away in Dec. of 2012, was a very-well known environmentalist, so the idea of drawing attention to the beauty of the Des Plaines River (essentially in the middle of a metropolitan area) eventually led to bringing in more people from the outside. The marathon’s popularity was established, eventually reaching a cut-off limit of 1,000 boats. The 2017 event featured about 800 participants in almost 600 craft.
The first race was held in the fall of ’57 with low water, where 25 boats made the challenging run. It was decided then to move the race to its present time when the river is more apt to be bank full. It’s also one of the most scenic times of the year with the trees and flowers in the bloom of spring. The second year saw 106 craft, followed by 156 the third year and 206 the year after.
“The event has evolved just as the entire sport of paddling itself has evolved,” said Alan Pilgrim, Sigrid’s husband. “There are fewer canoes, and with the explosion of recreational boats, sea kayaks and stand-up paddleboards (SUP), we’ve probably plateaued in the number of contestants. In 2014 we added a ‘minithon’ which is 5.25 miles for those that are less experienced. The marathon itself covers two forest preserves.”
Like in 2017, the Des Plaines River is now free-flowing for the entire course – meaning there are no portages for the racers to worry about. Dam removal by the Lake/Cook County Forest Preserves has made that possible.
“Thanks to the dam removal, the route is much more scenic,” Alan said. “The Des Plaines River begins in (Racine County) Wisconsin. The upper section through Lake County is much narrower, winding and scenic until it reaches Cook County. There it widens noticeably, so from there to the finish line, it’s more or less a straight paddle.”
The river travels 133 miles southward from Wisconsin. It eventually meets the Kankakee River west of Channahon to form the Illinois River, a tributary of the Mississippi.
The major concern with a spring race is a storm that could knock down trees across the route or lead to high water, especially with the just-completed winter melt before the race.
Sigrid points out that in most situations, “The Des Plaines River is usually pretty benign.”
“As event organizers, we are conscious of the fact that the river is subject to flooding,” added Alan. “We are constantly monitoring the United States Geological Survey water gauge. On the upper portion with the higher water, it’s a forest preserve – our main problem there would be debris blocking the passage.”
In addition to last year, the race was also canceled one other time in the early 2000s due to high water. Alan pointed out that in 2014 the water was also high but posed no threat for the more experienced paddlers. Participants that were not comfortable with the conditions that year were given a voucher toward the next year’s race.
In scouting, the awarding of colorful embroidered patches is an important recognition to both scouts and leaders. Now, all who reach the finish line in the race receive a souvenir patch. Because the Des Plaines River had been a route of the voyageurs in the years past, a cast figure of a voyageur as the trophy was created and is still the award for certain category first-place winners.
The race in the tandem divisions are advertised as a competitive, sanctioned event, but 80-90 percent of the participants would not be considered in a racer’s category. They are simply out for a nice time on the river, many doing so with children in the boat.
Editor’s notes: Due to the cancellation of the 2018 race, parts of this article were recreated from the 2018 May edition of Silent Sports.
For more information on the event, to register and to view past results, please visit canoemarathon.com or CLICK HERE.